Dr. Emily Puckett, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, attended the 2nd International Sun Bear Symposium in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia on Sept 25-26, 2019. The symposium focused on developing a 10 year action plan for the species that included setting conservation goals, stakeholder engagement strategies, and research priorities. Dr. Puckett contributed knowledge about integrating population genomics of bears to support conservation.
Sun bears (Ursus malayanus) are the world's smallest bear species and classified as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN. They range across Southeast Asia, and on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Habitat removal and conversion of forest to agriculture has resulted in both declining area and habitat fragmentation across their range. Further, sun bears are legally and illegally hunted for Traditional Asian Medicine products (gall bladder, bile, claws, teeth), meat, and due to bear-human conflict particularly on plantations. Further, cubs may be captured and kept as pets.
Dr. Puckett noted significant challenges researching sun bear ecology and evolution. "Like all bears, sun bears are a solitary species where males have largely non-overlapping ranges. That means you have to cover a lot of area if you set up hair snag corals or barrel traps. For American black bears we work in lots of temperate forests with low understory; but sun bears live in jungle habitats, which makes setting traps to obtain genetic samples much harder." The sun bear community works around this challenge by studying the bears in ex situ conservation care. These animals provide information on diet, behavior, and hopefully in the future a better understanding of their evolutionary history.
When asked about the highlight of the symposium, Dr. Puckett said, "meeting Dr. Wong Siew Te! He's a giant in the bear conservation community and approaches his work with unending enthusiasm." Dr. Wong is the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.
Dr. Puckett's trip was supported by a seed grant from the University of Memphis Center for Biodiversity Research.